Saturday, June 16, 2018

Dragon Quest Symphonic Suite + String Quartet

So now that I had acquired the more elusive We Love Wizardry, I was looking forward to getting hold of the Dragon Quest LPs from the 80s. These comprise I-IV, are orchestrated but also include the famicom chiptunes.

While browsing around, and adding up what it would cost me to get good copies, I came across a compilation CD purple box set on Amazon's Japan store which made me scuttle my original project. For less money, I could get all the orchestrated versions from I to VII in new condition and pristine sound if I could let go of the original chiptunes and the Akira Toriyama artwork which aren't included on the CDs. Since, in the end, I cared more for the music itself I bought the box set and I'm perfectly happy.

There was a rival black box set that included up to IX which was of even more limited issue. I decided against it for its approach which groups the themes in similar groups for comparison as in all the town themes, and all the fight themes together, etc. I rather wanted more the traditional sequential presentation for each game where I could follow the drama through my ears. I could always buy the additional CDs up to the present individually.

The music for the purple box set is performed by the London symphonic orchestra and here are some of my musical impressions of it. Be, however, informed that only ever played DQ I & II and had the opportunity of watching the anime series. This means that I was not familiar at all from IV on which shows in what follows.

Dragon Quest I + II

DQ I


Overture March. The title music is probably the most memorable piece from the whole series, if anything because it is retaken by each game. Here, in its first appearance, consists in the fanfare and march followed by some small variations. Variations are the norm for this first release and in my case they are always welcome because they play on the things you know and love. The fanfare and march is very exciting and sets you in the mood for the things to come.

Château Ladutorm. The castle theme is played delicately on strings followed by a small fantasy on its theme.

People. The town theme, now that I can hear it orchestrated, feels very pastoral-like. This one now is extended moving from strings to glockspiel to woodwinds. So playful in its entirety that it could function as a theme for a children's show.

Unknown World. The overworld theme played by a single flute occasionally supported by heavy strings inspires a sense of loneliness. As you know, there was just a lone hero with no party system. This theme is the least changed from the game rendition.

Fight. Now, the battle theme is one of the worst, if not the worst, battle music I have ever heard. The first time I played the game I thought that it was broken. With the benefit of the orchestration is now more listenable and some enjoyment can be drawn out of it. The battle alert is played out and an extension for the theme adds more drama.

Dungeons. The loveliest piece is this one, narrowly edging the overworld theme. There is a feel of cool, spooky darkness where you can almost feel the condensation on the dungeon walls. In the NES version, once you got to the castle of the Dragonlord the music became slower and deeper the further in the player explores it. This effect is reproduced here with variations.

King Dragon. I'm not especially fond of the gong at the beginning of the final fight with the Dragonlord as it gives an out of place Chinese feel to it, however the rest of the track more than makes up for it. The growing pressure clearly reminds me of Mars from Holst's The Planets. There is something else that rings a bell… Bolero?

Finale. This first victory theme for the series is very solid and in part so touching that it gives me the chills especially the rising crescendo.


DQ II


Dragonquest March. The title fanfare for the second installment has a more brassy feel.

Only Lonely Boy. One of the longest in its original NES inception is surprising now in its instrumentation work  performed only by plucked strings. I would have liked some other idea, but as it is, it is welcome.

Pastoral~ Catastrophe. I cannot remember having heard this one at all before though, it is still evocative.

Château. I believe this one is the most polished track for this title and and the most Baroque in the box set. Sounds like an adagio Bach would write in a calmer season. Sadness.

Town. As you would expect, the jolly town theme is yet another jolly town theme. This one has an extension and I like those horns.

Fight in the Dungeon~ Devils Tower. This one gives me the sensation of listening something out of the Smurfs were evil is not really evil but fun, safe evil. Impressionistic as well.

Requiem. Another effective theme that ties up well with the Château music.

Endless World. The overworld themes bouquet starts melancholicly as if recovering from defeat and then setting the eyes high. The oboe solo makes me want to remember something. The lonely theme from the first game sounds now even more lonesome than before and the third overworld with hope and power. In conjunction, these three together are the most cinematic up until now.

Beyond the Waves. I don't really care much for the ship themes, but there are really many of them all throughout the games. This one sounds like a waltz for a ball.

Deathfight~ Dead or Alive. The final boss fight sounds now way better than it used to. The drums give and take and on the whole, is the most complex for the game. A quick note here: this is the hardest final boss encounter I've ever experienced. In one round the enemy would deal a brutal amount of damage; in the next one, it would cast heal all on himself.

My Road My Journey. The final theme is a crowning achievement in emotion. This one is probably in my top two ending themes of all time and it is reused for the anime series. This is what an ending theme should really sound like. I frequently tear up a bit when I listen to it or remember it.



Dragon Quest III


Roto. Another good version of the fanfare and march. Unextended.

Adventure. Also occurred in the anime series.

Dungeon ~ Tower ~ The Phantom Ship. This one contains another solid dungeon theme which was also featured in the anime series. The phantom part reminds me of the music you hear in the lower levels of Castlevania III.

Into the Legend. The final theme is on par with the previous two.


Dragon Quest IV


Overture. This version of introductory theme is different enough to be enjoyed on its own.

Comrades. This one is a long succession of great themes, including one in Spanish style, which by itself makes the album.

In a town. Some jazz.


Dragon Quest V


Of the collection, I feel this is the weakest title. Not bad, but I couldn't find a theme to hang onto. Maybe perhaps the battle music?

Dragon Quest VI


Things noticeably pick up in this installment, though not quite on par with the first four titles.

Through the Fields~ Wandering through the Silence~ Another World. Another nice musical collection of themes which brings the world to life. There is more jazz here as well.
The final piece clearly reminds me of the main title and march from A Fistful of Dynamite by Ennio Morricone. It even has corresponding instrumental wah wahs.

Flying Bed. Sounds to me as it were composed by Leroy Anderson.


Dragon Quest VII


Overture VII. The main theme once more. By now it hasn't really changed over the last three installments.

Strolling into Town. More jazz this time is Sinatra style.

Memories of a Lost World~ Moving through the Present. The first part reminds me of a Final Fantasy IV theme.

Fighting Spirit~ World of the Strong. Another good fight theme.

Screams from the Tower Monsters. Very effective. I liked it.

Orgo Demila. I see some Rite of Spring in here.


In the end this is an excellent collection yet one that is not uniformly so. It would appear to me that that the composer's best ideas were used up on the first four installments and on the later games he coasts on a trodden path. Notwithstanding, he still manages to surprise from time to time and the orchestrations is what any game music aficionado could hope for.

Now, the experience doesn't end here.

String Quartet "Dragon Quest"



While completing my order I came across and added the string quartet adaptations album. In general I like how strings sound, but I cannot wrap around my head how to enjoy a proper string quartet. I figured that with uncomplicated, beautiful known melodies I could have some traction. I left this album last, after I had been acquainted with the box set and am happy to say that it was not disappointed in the least. This unassuming album indeed is a very special one that not only retakes the themes but manages to incorporate more compositional ideas to them. The music stands on a different level than the already great box set. I believe that each piece, each track represents the best version the composer can dream of. Each one by itself is like a gem for its quality and would be a standout anywhere else. Having them all set in one place is just breathtaking. There is no chaff here and I call it now: this is the best album of the year for me.

If you're going to buy only one album I would recommend you to be this one. It can be identified by its white cover and ivy motif. 


What's next for the future? There's a bewildering amount of releases for the Dragon Quest series judging by the videogame music database page on it. I'm very glad of having struck gold on my first attempt, but I'm not so sure if I would like getting more and more albums as I feel I would be getting negative utility quite soon. In other words, I feel I had already had my fill. I intended to get the symphonic from VIII to the present, each album bought separately. These other albums appear to be well rated by others, but I would need some other push to order them. Had I actually played the games, things would surely be different. Now however, if there's ever another string quartet release, I will pounce on it in a heartbeat.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

The Babadook vinyl by Waxwork Records review


If you're anything like me, you might have wondered where to get the title pop-up book after watching the Babadook. As it turns out there was a limited edition of them and have been sold out for years now. Copies can still be bought at auction sites and such, but for hundreds of dollars. After getting wind that Waxwork Records was going to release the standard for this title last year I decided that it was the best next thing to the actual book.

Here is how it rates as I see it:


Pros


  • It's the freaking Babadook +1 star
  • The cover visually matches that of the book +1
  • We get a pop-up in the centerfold +1
  • As compared with Nosferatu, the pressing is dead silent. Bravo. +1
  • Separate artwork, notes from the composer and a nice splatter +.5
  • Inclusion of hype sticker and some label postcards  +.25


Cons


  • I got a torn inner sleeve. Not really a problem. -0 stars
  • The length of the soundtrack is on the short side, but doesn't feel lacking. -0
  • For the second time for a Waxwork release (out of two in my case) I find that it is really difficult to get the record in and out of the outer sleeve -.25
  • The cover is non-textured. It looked as if it would come this way, but didn't. I feel this omission hurts the overall experience as they let go one of the senses, touch, which kind of was already implied. Maybe some manufacturing issues came into play, but I feel that Waxwork dropped the ball on this one. -1

After all this, however, I feel it gets half a point back for the actual music which lives up to the oniric theme and places the whole release on a more balanced footing between music and looks.


Not scientific but fair. 4 stars

Saturday, April 7, 2018

We Love Wizardry LP review



The first time I learned about Wizardry was from a review on Game Pro magazine for the NES version. I was fascinated by the secrets and the winding corridors shown in the maps. I begged to have this game for Christmas and enjoyed it fully. My friend Gabriel, who was the only other person that I knew that played RPGs, hated it immediately however when he tried it and bumped into walls. He thought that the "ouch!" messages were silly. Even though I have completed  it many times (I still have my cartridge) my interest has shifted from the gameplay itself to its peculiar art and music. When I tried the primitive original version from the Interplay collection I didn't get the same magic and immersion present in the Nintendo incarnations. The custom-made Baroque music fitted like a glove and it was exciting and charming. My favorites were the title theme, the battle theme that never became old and the very soothing camp music. For many years I had to make do with MIDI versions to listen, but on the Napster era I came across some few seconds, a partial download, from the title theme majestically orchestrated. At the time I did not know where this came from, but now I know it is from the official version released by the composer for retail sale on LP, CD and cassette. Its title: We Love Wizardry.

And of course we do. So much so, that it is a very hard soundtrack to find. Not only was a Japan-only release, making it hard to come across it for starters, but it is also an expensive one. CDs, from what I have seen, start at $100 (used) and could comfortably go for $200 (still used). LPs go even higher, but I have seen a recent tendency to ask more for the CD version. As one would expect a better sleeve + media condition notches even higher prices. My guess is that people do not want to let go off their copies.

In the last couple of years I spent my time waiting for publications on eBay and Discogs or that someone might inadvertently ask for a lower price. I was willing to go for it regardless of the format. Or maybe, with the vinyl revival and the very recent interest in videogame music, a re-release. The master had to exist somewhere, didn't it? For all the We Love Wizardry proclamations, the affection paradoxically doesn't seem to be widespread enough to merit. Even more popular titles, namely Dragon Quest, have not seen their existing soundtracks re-released, so what chance was there? When I felt I had waited long enough and that any change to the status quo was not forthcoming, I decided to bite the bullet.

Now, I'm interested in the music itself and the physical experience of an LP if it came to that. I try to avoid being an actual collector because I really don't want anything and everything, it is too much of a distraction and an expensive one. A very few, well-chosen titles, as I have said before, suffice for me. We Love Wizardry happens to be one of those. I had been eyeing a long published vinyl offer on Discogs for $150. When one day it vanished, I vowed that I would take the next opportunity and it came back last January at just that price. By this time I had the resources, but it didn't make it any easier forking so much dough on just one LP. Went for it. This itch had to be scratched and it seems this will be the most expensive record I will ever buy.

What I bought what described as NM in both media and sleeve. The seller was efficient in processing my order and I made sure to ask him to put, if possible, the record outside of the sleeve and in a double box for better protection. He said no problem. Then came the scary wait. I opted for the most expensive, registered airmail, but it didn't seem to have an impact on shipping time. It came from Japan in around five weeks and by this time I was expecting the package to be partly torn, crushed and generally mangled for all that transit and handling. I should have asked for FedEx.

However, when I finally got the package I was surprised that the contents had not been damaged in the least. The cardboard had some few bumps and scuffs and looked as if it had been run over by a motorcycle tire on one side, but held. No double box, but the record was indeed packaged separately and held firmly. Both record and sleeve combo were in a sealed plastic (Mylar?) outer sleeve. The record sleeve itself was a sight to behold. Despite its 30 years of existence, it looked as if it had been printed last week all smooth and shiny. Who knows how many people owned and lovingly cared for it all these years.

My copy also came with its original obi sash and insert. The insert was described as having a few stains and I believe that this helped me pricewise. I knew from a Japan trip episode from Nate Goyer's "The Vinyl Guide" podcast that record dealers over there generally are very conservative with their gradings and that any minute imperfection impacts the price. Once more, I believe that with my copy this was the case. The scores for all the tracks are included. I cannot read music but it's nice to have it for archival purposes (yeah). There appears to be an official sticker (hype? separate?) but I knew that this one wasn't included. In a way I'm glad it didn't because its inclusion would have meant an even greater expenditure and I wasn't about to stick it somewhere. It would have been nice, for completion's sake, but that's still an extra. Would I buy it if I saw it sold separately? How much would I be willing to pay for it? I don't know, maybe $20 or up to $40. I'm very happy with what I already got. Music, record condition and, if possible, sleeve condition was what I going for.

Originally I intended to listen to it right away but since Lent was coming I thought to defer the first listening for after Easter. I thought that it would be a good thing, in addition to others, to offer God for the season. As you can see, I was melting for it, but God takes the top spot. It was a shame to finally unpack such beauty. Would I be able to take as good care for my record as others had done? My. At the very least I could make a digital copy for the ages, pack everything in a Groove Vinyl oversized protective sleeve and keep it out of the sun. For a brief moment I considered not playing it at all and having it for display-only, but discarded the idea as extravagant as I didn't have the wall space anyway. Using gloves to handle my $150 was not that far-fetched however.

The music for this title lives in a weird limbo between chiptune and real-life performance as it is generated by high-end synthesizers. I wish we would have gotten some real instruments playing (a very unlikely occurrence for any soundtrack of the era other than Dragon Quest), but I am very thankful that they didn't just record the raw chiptune output. Had that last been the case, I would have certainly not bothered at all with the soundtrack. Another big plus is that the composer takes the opportunity to explore more in each track than just giving us the same old pieces we have already heard a million times. These two factors, along with the catchy underlying melodies, are what makes this one a standout musically speaking. There is now more power, there is more ebb and flow.

The sound quality is clear but a bit clicky which is something to be expected for its age, but not distracting. No loud pops.

All the tracks are extended with a bit of new material added beyond the point where you expect each to loop. About 30 extra seconds for each track.

Here are some brief impressions for some of the tracks:

The title theme is grander, more solemn and darker than the original and now reminds me of Handel's sarabande.

The castle theme is merry and makes a picture a cobbled medieval town on market day.

The adventurer's inn feels just what a place of relaxation and restoration should sound like.

Boltac's is the closest to the NES version.

In Gilgamesh's tavern there is a surprising entrance of a clavichord followed right away by a passage that reminds me of West Side Story.

The Temple theme sounds like a church hymn and is very effective in giving the sense of sacredness. The organ for this one however feels saturated. Maybe because it's the last track from side A.

The town outskirts music doesn't resist quoting a well-known circus theme.

If there is a theme that I like best in its original NES version, it is the Dungeon. As with many of the rest, it is now darker and foreboding. However, for this one, this makes it lose focus on the already effective minimalist melody. There is a shift from mystery to the feeling of walking on the edge of a chasm.

The Camp theme still remains sweetness.

The very small jingle that signals an encounter isn't included. The battle theme for its part is transformed from the intimate dungeon fight to what feels a very expansive and cinematic pitched battle where vast numbers of opponents are dealing and receiving death all around the listener. It is my belief that this one is one of the few baroque battle themes in gaming and whatever its rivals, it is a fine example.

The LP finishes with that victory theme which, of all the music from Wizardry, is the one one gets to listen the least. In addition it is, if I may, not that great. As a result, it doesn't quite on par with the rest of the music in terms of familiarity and enjoyment which makes the soundtrack as a whole end a bit on the downside.

The Wizardry series doesn't stop with the first title We Love Wizardry/Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord. There were other releases and soundtracks to match by the same composer. Is it the future for me to get those as well? By the looks of it, all these other soundtrack releases were published as CD only and while still rare and expensive, appear as more affordable and a bit easier to find than We Love Wizardry. There was a box-set release a long while ago and I seriously thought about getting everything in one fell swoop through a reseller at Amazon, but it turned out existing offers were (and still are) outrageously expensive as this one has the aggravating characteristic of being a limited release. Individual titles might work for me: Legacy is the highest rated; owned and loved Heart of the Maelstrom for the SNES; I may eventually buy a used Nintendo copy of Knight of Diamonds which I never had. So, individual CD purchases may be in the horizon.

For yourself, under which conditions would I recommend you get We Love Wizardry? As I see it, get it if you fit under any of the following: a) you are a hard-core collector and have the purchasing power; b) you love Wizardry/its music and can cut other outlays to make up for the expenditure; c) have some special interest such as reviewing it for a podcast. For the rest, and I would suggest that you first go out and buy the titles that really interest you and still hold on for the possibility of a re-release, however tenuous. I'm inclined to believe that it will never happen, but who knows? Copies from the 80s can still be bought, some way or other, the problem is their price. In the end, if you ever get hold of of one, I believe you will not regret it for its musical qualities.


4 stars







Saturday, March 17, 2018

Roosevelt: superhero

If there ever was a real life, flesh-and-blood superhero, this has to have been Theodore Roosevelt. Here's why think so:


  • Turned himself from a weakling to a muscular powerhouse
  • Beat asthma
  • Saved a tramp from the streets in Ireland
  • Served as acting Sherriff
  • Captured "Redhead" Finnegan
  • Sired a sizable brood
  • While serving under the Harrison administration he opposed the postmaster general and his creatures on public service reform
  • Cleaned the New York city's police, made night rounds in person, and enforced dry Sundays
  • Sundered the police connections with the underground
  • Was fearless when opposing machine politicians
  • Made ready the navy as acting navy chief for war
  • Was the first to officially propose the use of "flying machines" in naval operations
  • Commanded, in effect, one of the toughest, if not the toughest, regiments: the Roughriders
  • Survived the jungles of Cuba
  • Dodged bullets while leading the charge in San Juan Hill
  • Thought about swimming with sharks
  • Could, and actually did, knife a live puma
  • By the time he had reached the presidency, he had already read 20,000 books
  • His collected works meanwhile covered tens of volumes
  • Faced JP Morgan and his radioactive nose and lived to tell the tale
  • Could address a quarter of a million in one day without the aid of electronic equipment
  • Could shake 52 hands a minute for three hours straight
  • Survived a trolley smashing into his carriage with him inside with just minor injuries
  • Asked not to be anesthetized for a tumor surgery on his shin
  • Gave birth to the Teddy bear… well, of sorts
  • Brokered peace between Russia and Japan
  • He had his own call signal: glasses and teeth
  • Could wolf down, in quantity, almost anything
  • Went for a year-long African Safari
  • Most amazing of all, survived being shot point blank, by stopping the bullet with his ribs. He went on to deliver a speech for over 45 minutes, bleeding, before allowing to be taken to a hospital
  • Barely survived the exploration of the River of Doubt in the Amazon jungle.
  • While there, swam in piranha waters. The rest of the neighborhood fauna didn't stop him from reading at night
  • Was also a renowned naturalist

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Nosferatu Vinyl by Waxwork records review

The first time I've appreciated cinematography (i.e. movies) as an art was when I watched an expert commentary for the 1922 Nosferatu on DVD. All the bits and images clicked in beautifully leaving me with a lasting impression and wanting for more. Fortunately, the entertainment industry has not disappointed in this respect and some Nosferatu's characteristics resurface from time to time. One of the most comprehensive is Kinski's 1970s remake which explored some possibilities. One of those is the addition of an inherent soundtrack by Popol Vuh.

By itself that music is both atmospheric and evocative and can stand on its own. When I gave it a few listens on spotify I knew that this music had to sound amazing on vinyl. It was a fortunate circumstance that not only the music existed for the format but that a new release from Waxwork records was available.

As with most of Waxwork's releases this one is pure eye candy. The new artwork is superb and presented in a gatefold fashion. There's an insert by the artist in which she explains her vision for the project. On the other side of this insert is the cover art in just a tad a smaller format than the cover. Presumably, and you can frame this instead of the whole album cover. The variant I received was that white marbled one which is absolutely the most beautiful vinyl I have set my eyes on. Keep in mind that my whole experience up until very recently have been my father's LPs which are uniformly black and some solid-colored ones here and there. The two vinyls on which the music is divided really look like marble. The inner sleeves are of black paper which is also a first for me. I'm sure that you metalheads have been getting this kind of merchandise for years now, but it's really something when you experience it for the first time. The center labels are also black with the track listings on one side and bat illustrations on the other. There's a bit of torn label near the punch holes that while undeserving, don't distract much.
Hype sticker

The pressing themselves for each LP are another matter. For a brand-new record is noticeably noisy on the first two sides with various clicks and hiss. These are all of small magnitude and certainly are not worrisome but they make you wonder about quality assurance. Due to the nature of the subject matter the clicks might even add some "character" to the output, but one would have expected less of them in this day and age. The last two sides sounded uniformly fine.

The only other drawback with this release is the difficulty of getting the inner sleeves into the outer as they do not seem to want to slide in easily and there is some risk of mangling that the thinner inner sleeve or damaging the insert. The album as a whole fits well in the the Groove Vinyl oversized plastic covers.

At the time of this writing it is out of stock but if you can get hold of it, I think it will be a great addition to your collection even more if you are a soundtrack aficionado. I will still be looking forward to Waxwork's future releases and hope that they finally iron out the kinks in the pressing process.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Babadook as a metaphor for sickness

A couple of Sundays ago I went for confession with a bit of a secondary motive. For some time now, my leg has been hurting and a few other complaints began to pile on. Since I would have the father all by myself in the confessional, I thought it would not be inappropriate to ask for his prayers when the confession was over. I did so and he did agree to add me to his prayers after ascertaining the nature of my illness, that it wasn't anything life-threatening or anything. He also gave me a bit of advice: do not clash with your illness, rather make it your friend.

Later, after some reflection I saw that this mirrors the final state of affairs in the Babadook. You may not be able to get rid of it, but you can get into some sort of understanding.

In horror movies, the last surviving would-be victim, manages to fight off the menacing evil power, at least for a time, but seldom, as far as I can recall, does she stop to confront it in equal terms. In the Babadook, the Amelia does so and surprisingly she isn't snuffed out as one would expect, but both accept the new state of affairs. She still doesn't like him, but that doesn't mean they can be partners.

In Catholicism there is such a thing as redemption by suffering where one chips in, however feebly or modestly, with redemption by offering one's suffering, taking one's cross, and offering it to God. In this way, I've come to the conclusion that one indeed can become friends with one's sickness. As with the Babadook, one doesn't have to like it, but if I way out is not forthcoming, not only does one do not strengthen it by fighting it (being anxious about it), but one can reap otherworldly benefits by its acceptance. Amelia at the end of the movie intimates to Samuel that in due time he would get to see what's in the basement. Likewise for us.

The fit isn't perfect but both sickness and Babadook touch so many common points that I thought to flag them.

If you would like to know more about redemption by suffering check out episode 11  (2/18/05) of the podcast Ignition on your favorite podcast catcher.
(I use Podcast Addict)

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Poor man's voice web browsing for Windows

Now, if you read my post on voice recognition for your Linux virtual machine, there's no reason why you cannot take the same elements, sans the virtual machine, and have your own custom voice-recognition command center facility in native Windows.

Microsoft's own speech recognition is already there, free, and its "show numbers" feature surpasses anything that Dragon NaturallySpeaking has to offer (as far as I'm aware of; I'm still on version 11). However, for whatever reason, you may one day want to browse the web, or do whatever else, using your own commands. Glovepie can leverage the OS' speech module. Why not avail yourself of free tools? My offered solution might work for you.